Posts Tagged With: Graffiti

The War in Pompeii

In the autumn of 1943, during the Allied push to move up the Italian peninsula, the city of Pompeii was bombed twice, in September and October. Rumours have long abounded that someone in the Allied leadership believed that a Nazi Panzer unit was hiding amongst the ruins of the houses and buildings of the city (I know tanks are good at difficult terrain, but I can’t see them successfully maneuvering on many of Pompeii’s streets), but it is now thought both raids were accidental rather than deliberate. Regardless, more than one hundred and fifty bombs fell on the ruins, causing considerable damage to a number of houses, the original museum, and the palaestra.

Plan Pompeii 1943 Bomb Damage Bestand-Microfiche-D-DAI-ROM-1303_D06 neg 65.2004.jpeg

I’ve always rather marveled at the fact that despite heavy damage in the southwest corner of the city to the palaestra, the one bomb that fell upon the amphitheatre landed in the middle of the arena floor, causing the least damage possible to the structure:

Of course, in the aftermath, no Nazi tanks (or even troops) were found in the city.

As the war moved north, and slowly came to an end, Pompeii became the focus of a different sort of military activity: tourism. Troops stationed in and around Italy visited the ruins in huge numbers. A brief account of such visits can be found here. tumblr_o5n6n6ucql1rq5hzro1_500

Two such visitors left behind a graffito, recording their time in the city. Found on a wall in the House of Paquius Proculus (I.vii.i, also known as the House of Cuspius Pansa as electoral dipinti for both men were found on the walls), it contains the initials of two individuals and the date, the 31st of July 1944.

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The house itself had been excavated first in 1911 and completed between 1923 and 1926, thus making it one of the more recently discovered properties in 1944. As the house still retains extensive wall paintings and intricate floor mosaics (the atrium floor especially, which today cannot be walked on), it must have been quite a site a mere twenty years after it was cleared of volcanic debris. There is no way of knowing anything further about the people that left this inscription, A.V. and A.L., or even if they were military, but the date suggests to me that it is unlikely there were many civilian tourists visiting Pompeii at the time. The manner in which the date is written – day then month – along with the cross on the seven, indicates the person who scratched this was not American in origin, most likely European or Australian.*

There are numerous accounts of soldiers visiting ancient sites and cultural landmarks throughout Europe and North Africa during the war, but this is the first time I have come across direct evidence of it myself. I am sure other graffiti of a similar ilk must exist, but undoubtedly have not been recorded systematically. If anyone has come across texts like this, particularly in Pompeii or Herculaneum, do let me know.

 

*Update: This post sparked conversation with Dr. Nigel Pollard, who is currently writing a monograph on Pompeii during the war, who suggests the banded seven was uncommon amongst Brits at the time, and may be attributed to French troops active in the area.

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Damnation

About a month ago I managed to escape from the library long enough to pop into a small temporary exhibit at the  British Museum – Defacing the past: damnation and desecration in imperial Rome. It focuses on the practice of damnatio memoriae, where (mostly) bad emperors were condemned by the Senate, and had their name and likeness removed. In some instances, this was done by one emperor in order to remove a rival. Caracalla’s destruction of his brother Geta’s memory is the most obvious example, and one that featured heavily in the exhibit. But it was also a practice engaged in by the people after to removal of a particularly hated ruler. Pliny the Younger, writing after the damnatio memoriae had been issued for Domitian, said ‘How delightful it was, to smash to pieces those arrogant faces, to raise our swords against them, to cut them ferociously with our axes, as if blood and pain would follow our blows.’ (Panegyric 52.4-5). As I expected, the collection on display included some re-modelled or damamged portrait busts, a lot of coins that had one face rubbed out, and a few monumental stone inscriptions with lines chiseled out. What surprised me was to see a graffito, imitating a monumental inscription, and bearing the same erasure that a lapidary text would suffer. (The original graffito is not on display, but there is a large reproduction).

 

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Found in a guardhouse of the nightwatch in Trastevere in Rome, the original text says:

CIL VI 3075
Imp(eratore) d(omino) n(ostro) Alexandro III / co(n)s(ule) |(centuria) Auli Terentius / Felix devotus numini / eorum feci(t) sebac{c}i/aria m(ense) Mai{i}o / salvis commanipu/los.
‘To the emperor our lord Alexander, consul for the third time, Terentius Felix member of the division of Aulus, devotee of the protective gods of the imperial family, performed the [night watch] rota of the month of May with all his companions safe.’

The graffito includes what looks like an altar, with the text inscribed on the base, and surmounted with a statue of Victory holding a palm, and busts of Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mamaea, on either side. When Alexander was assassinated in AD 235, this death marked the end of the Severan Dynasty and the start of nearly fifty years of civil wars and upheaval, in which twenty-six of the next twenty-eight emperors were also assassinated. After his death, his memory was condemned. The graffito was then defaced – the images of him and his mother were both crossed out, and his name was struck through in the first line of text. The damage done to the graffito is clearer in a line drawing:

 

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Although the Senate issued a damnatio memoriae at the time of his death, this was lifted in AD 238, when Alexander Severus was instead deified. What is particularly interesting about that is that it potentially allows the execution of the damnatio memoriae on the graffito to be dated to a three year period. Furthermore, I find the act of defacing a graffito in this manner unusual in and of itself, and would surmise that it has only happened because it isn’t just a random scribbling, but one that was specifically made to replicate a monumental inscription. I have written about this practice before, but never have I come across a text that was defaced after a Senatorial decree. This, I think, puts a whole new twist on the concept of a damnatio memoriae, and how it was viewed or enacted by ordinary Romans.

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Amor vincit omnia

I have been feeling a bit guilty there was no #GraffitiFriday post last week, and here it is Friday again and I had nothing planned. I’ve not had much time to look at graffiti lately as I’ve been working to meet publishing deadlines on another project. And this week has been even worse because… well. I try very much to keep my own political leanings out of my professional life, so let’s just say staying up till six am to watch these particular election results has been more than a little devastating both physically and emotionally. I think there are a lot of people in the world right now who need a hug. I can’t do that for everyone, but I’ll offer you instead a lovely little message I came across on the canalside in Birmingham a few months ago, that suggests one small way to make the world feel like a friendlier place. There were numerous such texts sprayed onto the bricks, I discovered, which gave me a sort of joy in thinking these were sanctioned works using a method that is usually considered vandalism. And who couldn’t use a little joy right now?

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H.R. Fecit

Much to my chagrin, one of my most recent forays into finding graffiti included a supremely klutzy moment wherein, distracted by some scratchings in the stone wall, I completely missed a couple of steps in what was probably the most inelegant tumble ever,  and am still limping around Oxford with the resultant sprained ankle. Nevertheless, I was much intrigued by what I saw on the walls of Kenilworth Castle.

Kenilworth Castle is largely a ruin today, but has stood on a hill for nearly nine hundred years. Its ruinous state is largely down to Oliver Cromwell, who ordered the demolition of the castle after the Civil War. It remained the possession of a single family from the time of the Restoration until 1938, when it was given to the state, and later in the century, English Heritage. Despite private ownership, it became a tourist destination in the early nineteenth century, with a little help from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821).

It should come as no surprise then, that the graffiti I stumbled upon (literally!) in the castle keep is not medieval, but fairly modern. The earliest date I found was 1835:

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The latest was inscribed by Cindy and Guy in 1983. I expect, as the castle  passed into the hands of English Heritage in 1984, the area was better secured against would be graffitists as none have a date after this point.

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The keep itself is a sort of reddish-greyish sandstone, so whilst not the easiest surface to carve into, isn’t as difficult as some other rocks. This, and the interest of time, is probably why most of the marks left behind are merely initials.

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I was, naturally, thrilled to see that one tourist had traveled to the castle from my homeland – specifically – my home state:

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W.A. came from New York in 1871. At that time crossing the ocean was a much more difficult endeavour than now, and thus I can understand that this individual felt some compunction to record where it was s/he had originated. It is the only graffito of its kind in the castle, as far as I was able to locate, making me conclude this may have been one of the only foreigners who chose to leave a mark.

And finally – the one that I found most exciting (pointing it out to my partner immediately preceded my tumble down the steps) is, in fact, in Latin:

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Here we see some attempt to draw an artificial box around a collection of names (not unlike some Roman graffiti that present themselves as documents) and the date – 1901. This is likely a group of friends who decided to leave a substantial reminder of their visit. Although a cursory glance suggests there are a few different hands potentially at work here, it seems likely one is responsible – or at least claiming so. H.R. made this.

 

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I Predict a Riot

Earlier this week I had the great privilege to spend an hour in a room full of engaged and enthusiastic Year 9 students talking about Pompeian graffiti. These students are studying for a GCSE in Classical Civilsation after school as part of The Iris Project at Cheney School. During the paper, in which I was introducing them to various aspects of graffiti and dipinti and the ways historians use these inscriptions, I was asked a question that rather took me by surprise. It wasn’t about graffiti, but about a wall painting that I was using to illustrate an event in Pompeii’s history which is related to a number of graffiti.

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This painting, found in the House of Anicetus, ( I.iii.23 ) famously depicts the riot that took place in the amphitheatre in AD 59. We know this is a real event because Tacitus tells us about it:

Tacitus Annals 14.17
‘At around the same time, there arose from a trifling beginning a terrible bloodbath among the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus, whose expulsion from the senate I have recorded previously. Inter-town rivalry led to abuse, then stone-throwing, then the drawing of weapons. The Pompeians in whose town the show was being given came off the better. Therefore many of the Nucerians were carried to Rome having lost limbs, and many were bereaved of parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate; they passed it to the consuls. When their findings returned to the senators, the Pompeians were barred from holding any such gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved, Livineius and the others who had instigated the trouble were exiled.’

In addition, there are a number of graffiti that illustrate the kind of animosity between neighbouring towns that may have contributed to, or resulted from, the event that Tacitus describes.

CIL IV 2183
Puteolanis Feliciter / omnibus Nuc{h}erinis / felicia et uncu(m) Pompeianis / Petecusanis.
Good fortune to the Puteolans; good luck to all Nucerians; the executioner’s hook to Pompeians.’

CIL IV 1329
Nucerinis / infelicia.
‘Ill luck to the Nucerians.’

One even accompanies a drawing depicting a gladiator holding a palm of victory:

glad

CIL IV 1293
Campani victoria una / cum Nucerinis peristis.
Campanians, in our victory you perished with the Nucerians.’

The question that was asked, however, related not to the graffiti but to the painting itself, or more to the point, how unusual it was to have a painting in one’s house that depicted such violence. On most occasions when I have come across a reference to this painting in a scholarly work, if the oddness of it is mentioned at all, it is done in a very offhand way of wondering why someone would wish to commemorate such an event (even if the Pompeians were considered the victors). I have never come across a comparison to other wall paintings in terms of the nature of the violence illustrated. In the moment when the question was asked, I was racking my brain for a similar scene – and I couldn’t think of a single one. The closest may be the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, which depicts a military battle. Still, as detailed as it is in regards to fallen men and distressed looking horses, it does not depict seemingly dead bodies still on the ground as we can see in the painting from Anicetus’s house. The very nature of gladiatorial combat is a gruesome and bloody sport to which Romans were largely accustomed, but sitting in an arena watching a contest which may result in spilled blood (but, contrary to popular belief, rarely death) is quite a different thing than displaying images of the dead or dying on the wall of your house.

The question, as raised by this student, made me think about the painting in a different way, and really wonder about the mindset of the person who had it commissioned. (I am now extremely curious to see if I can find anything comparable on the wall of a Roman house. If anyone has any examples – do let me know.)  This has been on my mind for a number of days, not just because of the nature of the question, but because of who asked it. It was a timely (and to be honest, necessary) reminder that for as much as I know and continue to learn about the ancient world, there is always a new and interesting way to think about things. More to the point, it is more often than not our students who point us in a different direction, and that our research, without our students, is lacking something essential.

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Touring the Temple of Isis

The Temple of Isis in Pompeii has always been an intriguing structure for those who work in the ancient city. Not only is it a clear representation of the influx (and acceptance) of foreign gods in Rome, it also has had a distinct place in the conversation regarding euergetism, the political advancement of the sons of freedmen, and the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake in AD 62. The temple, seemingly demolished in its entirety in the earthquake, was rebuilt quickly due to the generosity of a six year old boy named Numerius Popidius Celsinus. It was among the first structures to be excavated in Pompeii, discovered in 1764.

I was recently in Pompeii doing a bit of work on graffiti, and much to my surprise, found a few in the Temple of Isis that I had somehow never noticed before. This, much like last week’s post, isn’t ancient graffiti, but instead is something more akin to early modern graffiti. The small building just to the south of the cella identified as a purgatorium (you can see the plan of the temple complex here) is still fairly well covered with the original ancient stucco work.

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The plaster has been used to record names of tourists and visitors, going back to the time the building was first excavated.

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The earliest I found was the above, J. Broom, who carved his name in 1789. The majority seem to date to the last few decades of the 1700s and the 1800s. The latest specific date I saw was 1900. Whilst the majority of the names were Anglophone (hardly a surprise considering the popularity of the Grand Tour amongst the British at that time), I was pleased to see at least one Italian had also left his mark. A man named Giuseppe (I can’t quite make out the surname), was there in 1790.

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I’ve already written about the seemingly inherent human desire to leave behind a mark (here and here), but there were a couple of other things that struck me about these particular graffiti. One is the handwriting. It is very obvious that most of these texts were written in a different era simply by the penmanship. This is particularly stunning in view of carving a name in stucco – few blocky large letters – but almost exclusively the fine cursive fonts of another century. It has the appearance of names having been signed with pen and ink rather than carved with a sharp object into a hard surface. Also, the specificity. A few people didn’t just record their names and the year, but also the month, and even the day.

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These visitors to the temple in May of 1797 (specifically on the 24th for the one on the left), used the column as their writing surface, thus limiting themselves considerably on space.

I admittedly rather like this little collection of names and dates in the Temple of Isis, despite the fact that usually I am disgusted by the addition of graffiti by modern tourists to sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Normally, I consider this defacement, and the destruction of irreplaceable ancient surfaces. This strikes me as particularly egregious when someone has written across a wall painting (what kind of tourist even brings a marker into the site?). Yet these texts, despite being defacement of an ancient monument, also tell a story about the site, about the history of the excavations and access, and about how Pompeii became a recognizable place in the world’s collective cultural mind. So whilst I am somewhat conflicted about their existence, finding them, searching for different years, looking at handwriting styles and names, was a few minutes of absolute joy, and a reminder of why I love doing what I do.

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Scribblers and Scholars

Last weekend I finally got around to doing one of those Oxford things that one living here should do: despite my slight tendency to vertigo I climbed the very narrow, steep and winding stairs to the top of the tower of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Although it is believed that there has been a church in this location since Anglo-Saxon times, the current building is an assemblage of components built between the thirteenth and eighteenth century. The oldest part of the structure is the Tower, dated to 1280. Tourists (okay, and residents) climb the tower for the stunning views over the skyline of Oxford. Narrow walkways are on all four sides of the Tower, linked by small arched passageways. Within two of these corner passages, I discovered a wealth of inscribed names, initials, and dates. DSCF7643

The earliest date I found inscribed is in the above photo, 1612, carved deeply beneath a less visible 1791. An individual with the initials AR, in the upper right corner, carved his (I’m assuming) initials in 1676. The overlap of names and the wearing over time has rendered most of the scratchings fairly illegible. Whilst I have seen other churches (Gloucester Cathedral comes to mind) with graffiti inscribed by builders and craftsmen, the dates and use of the building suggest to me that the majority of these names belong to students or visitors to the university. The Tower, a few floors below this vantage point, contains the Old Library. Built in 1320, it was the first central university office and library (i.e. not college affiliated), and was used for meetings and research prior to the construction of the Bodlian Library and Divinity School, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the latest dated inscriptions I found were from 1811, when Messrs. Stone and Godfrey carved their names, well past the time when the Tower rooms would have still been used as originally intended.

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One other aspect I found quite interesting is the obvious time and care that was taken in carving these names. Many have the letters blackened, a practice similar to using red paint as was common in Roman monumental inscriptions. In addition, a close look at the lettering indicates that on many occasions there were attempts made at style – adding serifs to the letters, creating the appearance of distinct fonts and handwritings. Compare, for example, the photo below, where both the ‘R’ and initial ‘W’ of the surname have distinct serifs, difference in thickness of the lines of the lettering, and show a replication of a monumental style of inscription. This is at odds with the penciled text beneath, clearly by a more modern hand, which lacks the same level of artistry all together.

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I have written before about that overwhelming desire people have to record their name, or leave a mark. It would appear that on some level, the students of Oxford in centuries past were no different. What is remarkable, at least to me, is that such effort went into carving the letters and attempting to make them visible and lasting. This suggests a desire for permanence that isn’t all that surprising – it is exactly the thing that has led people to write on walls – whether in Pompeii two thousand years ago, in a church tower in Oxford four hundred years ago, or on an underpass over the motorway today.

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Ex Libris…

I’ve spent most of this past week packing up my office as my post-doc is soon coming to an end. Whilst moving is never an easy or stress free task, it seems to be considerably more complicated for the academic, whose office shelves are covered with hundreds and hundreds of books, box files filled with articles and offprints, and the various bits of detritus that accumulate seemingly out of nowhere (in my case, an odd assortment of notepads and post-its from four different universities). Books are, for those in the humanities, still the fundamental source of research despite the growing availability of digital copy. So as I sit here, surrounded by boxes and boxes of books, I can’t help but think of how important many of them have been to me, for teaching, for writing, and most importantly, for the pure enjoyment of reading. This brings to mind a graffiti I found near a branch library in Coventry (unfortunately under threat of closure):

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Good advice: we should all read more books. I am, however, having second thoughts about buying so many of them.

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Queer Graffiti

In recent weeks I’ve had cause to travel a bit within the UK, and during this time, I’ve come across a couple of (modern) graffiti that I found interesting, for related but somewhat different reasons. The first is really a text that no longer exists. That is, it is clear that an attempt was made to remove the sprayed inscription, but it failed in the respect that the original words, though faded, are still visible. On the side of a building at the University of Manchester, one can see this:

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‘FIGHT AIDS ACT UP’

ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – was founded in New York City in 1987. Growing up in New York at the time, and with gay and lesbian friends as part of my community, church, and extended family network, this slogan, along with the image of the pink triangle and SILENCE = DEATH, were a familiar part of my childhood. I was, up to the moment I stumbled upon this, completely unaware of the slogan being used in the UK, or in fact, any time in the last twenty years or so. I am not by any means dismissing the continued need to campaign for gay rights, healthcare, and AIDS research (let’s face it, for everyone really), I just wasn’t aware of the ongoing use of this slogan. This of course set my epigraphic mind racing: when was this written? was it put up by an American? is it a relic of a very different time and place or reflective of a current movement? None of these questions seem to have answers (as far as I can tell), but it intrigued me nonetheless.

Then earlier this week I was in Belfast, and came across this:

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Having never been to Northern Ireland before, I may have held the somewhat stereotypical view of it being fairly conservative socially. As I walked around the city on Sunday and Monday, I was rather taken aback by the number of rainbow flags on display, and thought how wonderfully progressive  it was to see such a bold statement of acceptance on display. I couldn’t figure out why this would be the case in August, as Pride Month is in June, when most cities see annual events and parades organised by LGBTQ communities. It was only after I looked online that I discovered I missed Belfast Pride by a day – there had in fact been a parade on Saturday.

These messages are reflective of an important movement for rights and inclusion, and are reflective of a modern society, not to be found a few hundred years ago much less a few thousand. Attitudes and perceptions of homosexuality in antiquity are as conflicted and contested as they are in some parts of the world today. Nevertheless, what both of these graffiti brought to mind was the enduring importance of being able to have relationships in an individual’s life, whatever the sex or gender of the person you love. To quote a more recent slogan used in the gay rights movement worldwide, love is love is love. Here, four texts (two for men by men, two for women by women) provide some ancient evidence from the walls of Pompeii that echo this sentiment.

CIL IV 4485
Hectice pupe, va(le) Mercator tibi dicit.
Hecticus, my pet, Mercator says hello to you.’

CIL IV 1256
Sabine calos, Hermeros te amat.
‘Sabinus, my beauty, Hermeros loves you.’

CIL IV 5296 = CLE 950
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere || braciola et teneris / oscula ferre labelis. || I, nunc ventis tua gaudia, pupula, crede. || Crede mihi, levis est natura virorum. || Saepe ego cu(m) media / vigilare perdita nocte || haec mecum meditas: multos / Fortuna quos aupstulit alte || hos modo proiectos subito / praecipitesque premit. || Sic Venus ut subito coiunxit / corpora amantum || dividit lux et se / parees qui{d} amant.
‘Oh, if only I could grasp my gentle arms around you and and give kisses to your delicate little lips. Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds. Believe me, the nature of men is flighty. Often as I have been awake, lovesick, at midnight, I think on these things: many whom Fortuna raised high, then suddenly thrown down headlong, she now oppresses. Thus, just as Venus joins the bodies of lovers in a moment, daylight divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 8321a
Chloe Eutychiae s(alutem): / Non me curas, Euty / chia. Spe firma / tua Ruf(um)? amas.
‘Chole greets Eutychia: Eutychia you don’t care about me. With a firm hope you love…’

Love can be unrequited, relationships can be forbidden by law or moral code, or be the basis of a decades long campaign for equality. Regardless, in antiquity, or today, love is love is love. And that is definitely worth fighting for.

 

 

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I Shall Dance

A few blocks from my house there is a bit of graffiti (in the modern sense) on a brick wall. I first noticed it more than a year ago, and the fact that there has been no apparent attempt to clean it or cover it up suggests to me that whoever owns that wall can’t help but smile when they see it, just like I do.

“One day I will die but today I shall dance.”
When I walked past recently, with a million thoughts in my head and not really thinking about where I was, the sentiment of it suddenly struck me anew. Death – okay, and taxes –  are inevitable, but more to the point, there is a lot of bad stuff in life, in living. Anyone who has gone anywhere near a news source in the last few months is well aware of this fact. And in our own lives, there are rough times and sadness and frustration and things that make it all seem like there is not much point. As my dad (ever the optimist) would say, ‘We’re all doomed anyway.’ And yet… there are things, people, and yes, even the odd bit of spray paint on a wall, that suddenly make you realise that none of that matters. It’s about dancing, finding your joy, and reveling in the little moments that make every struggle worth it. It’s all too easy to lose sight of that from time to time. I’m glad this wall is around to remind me. So I shall dance: literally, figuratively, it doesn’t matter. You should do the same.

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